Sometime in the third act of Ruben Östlund’s “Triangle of Sadness,” Dolly de Leon arrives like a quiet storm. Stranded on an island, de Leon’s character — the toilet manager Abigail — flips the script so quickly, so easily, that no one else has the time or the gall to protest. Tiptoeing on the boundaries between genuine concern and unadulterated manipulation, de Leon’s every moment onscreen is hilarious and heartbreaking, sprinkled with the kind of tiny implosions and nuances only masters of their craft are capable of.
The acclaim she has gotten for playing Abigail in “Triangle of Sadness” is only a fraction of the momentum that she has recently built, but it has been crucial; opening doors she hadn’t thought possible. Most recently, her performance garnered unexpected Oscar buzz and led to her being signed by Fusion Entertainment — the company representing the likes of Sean Baker, Amy Seimetz, and Cooper Raiff. The film, which won the Palme d’Or at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, was recently acquired by TBA Studios for distribution in the Philippines and is set to premiere in the Philippines sometime this year.
Prior to our interview, I hadn’t known what to expect. Western media and even local tabloids have framed her as an intelligent yet mousy woman — an underdog, a bit player-turned-breakout star, a bastion for Filipino representation in a sea of foreign media. But when she entered the room, such easy categorizations proved to be shallow.
While lesser artists struggle to find their place in a room, the room strains to contain de Leon. Warm and charismatic, feisty and funny, it is easy to understand why Cannes has been so enamored with her and why every local artist that has worked with her has only had praise. From coffee preferences (“Brewed, black”) to industry etiquette (“There are actors who don’t even introduce themselves!”), de Leon pulls you into every story with her charisma. When she grabbed her phone to play music before the photoshoot, the room roared when Eminem's “Lose Yourself” started playing, de Leon matching the rap beat-for-beat.
It wasn’t always this way. Without the privilege of choice early on in her career, de Leon agreed to nearly every role — big or small, named or nameless — only to develop her craft. “I chase constant development, constant learning, constant growth,” says de Leon. “What I’m chasing is not perfection, it’s constantly learning about other people so that I can learn more about myself as a person and also as an actor.”
Now, the rewards of such investments have caught up. Suddenly, she has been the busiest she has been: writing for the first time in decades (“It’s a one act play. I’ll tell you about it later.”), working briefly on the set of “He’s Into Her” (“Everyone was lovely. And that Belle Mariano? She’s a great actress.”), acting in Teng Mangansakan’s new film “Salome” (“My god, I’m so excited for people to see that”), the list goes on. In 2022 alone, some of her projects include Joy Aquino’s sexy drama “Kitty K7” and Dennis Marasigan’s upcoming project for Vivamax, among others.
In anticipation of its release, we spoke to Dolly about her career-defining roles, the political nature of art and her collaborations, and why great acting is a commitment to generosity.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
A friend once said that “actors aren’t just actors.” In the years that you were working as an actor, I understand that you also had other jobs and creative endeavors. Could you talk about that?
It’s funny that you’re mentioning that because I was just with friends the other day and we were talking just about that: Theater actors will survive under any situation because we can do other things. I used to do facilitating and consulting for team development programs — [teaching] etiquette, table manners, presentation skills, and things like that. I was doing that for a long time — probably like 25 years while I was acting. If I’m not filming, I’d be doing that. It was only recently that I decided to do acting full-time. I made the conscious decision to do that so I can focus more. Aside from that, I’m also an acting coach for Sigrid Bernardo (“Mr. and Mrs. Cruz,” and “UnTrue”) and I think I can still imagine myself doing that because I love teaching.
What about it do you love?
I love learning, actually. It’s a very self-serving reason: because when I teach, I learn from my students and I learn more about myself as an actor. So nagagamit ko ‘yung tinuturo ko at natutunan ko doon sa tinturuan kong artista when I’m working with different actors with different skill sets. I learn from all of them — from the new ones who’ve never acted to the pros who are very good, I learn from them all the time, everyday.
You have nearly four decades of acting experience under your belt so I know it’s impossible to talk about every role in depth. Which roles throughout your career have impacted you the most? The ones that have informed not only how you see acting but also how you practice it?
I would say my thesis “Old Times” [which was] directed by Tony Mabesa. That was a play by Harold Pinter. I was 19 or 20, and I was playing a woman in her late 20s. It was challenging because it was Pinter and it had a lot of pauses and silences. At the time when I was a student, mas mahirap ‘yun eh. Kasi when you’re delivering a line, you can just think of intention and okay ka na. Eh bakit ka quiet? Bakit di ka nagsasalita? So challenge ‘yun.
Another one was “Tatlong Mariya” — which was directed by Loy Arcenas. I played Olga, the eldest sister. That was very important to me because it was [Anton] Chekhov, first of all. It was the most coveted female play. If you’re cast as one of the three sisters, that’s a good thing to add to your roster of work. Then kasama namin doon sina Dennis Marasigan, Nonie Buencamino, Mario O’Hara, Angeli Bayani, Mailes Kanapi, Che Ramos-Cosio, Tad Tadiwan, Chrome Cosio, Bong Cabrera, Lao Rodriguez… ang ganda-ganda nung cast. Ganoon ka-intense. Adapted to Filipino by Rody Vera. Ang intense lalo na dahil ang style ni Loy, table reading muna for two weeks straight. To the point na nagrereklamo na ‘yung mga ibang actors. “Kailan ba tayo maglalakad? Kailan ba tayo gagalaw?” Ako, enjoy na enjoy ako kasi ninamnam ko ang bawat [eksena] para kapag gumalaw na, mas kumportable na ako.
Kaya unforgettable sa akin ‘yun kasi na-nominate lahat ng babae sa play. Except for me! (Laughs)
Are you kidding?
No! Na-nominate sina Mailes, Angeli, and Che. Apat kaming babae sa play. Ako lang ang hindi. Pero you know what’s funny? I didn’t feel bad. I said: “Ay oo nga naman. Kasi chaka naman talaga ako.” May ganoon akong self-image noon. It was only later on that I realized: “Teka muna. Parang mali ata ‘yun. I was snubbed?” So that’s a very precious play for me because so many things happened.
When I auditioned, I wasn’t even chosen to play Olga. Someone else was. I filled in because that actress backed out because she preferred to shoot a film. So Loy, because I auditioned, said: “Sige, si Dolly na lang.” And then noong ginagawa namin ‘yung play, sinabi niya sa akin: “Dolly, you’re living proof that not all actors do well in auditions.”
Natuto rin ako doon kung paano mag-audition. Ang chaka ko talaga nung audition, totoo naman. So that’s also part of a skill set that an actor needs to have — the skill to audition; to know how to manipulate the director or the casting team to buy you. Kaya special sa akin ‘yung “Tatlong Mariya.”
And ‘yung “Ang Naghihingalo” ni Dennis Marasigan. Raymond P. Reyes ‘yung playwright. Kasama ko rin si Bong Cabrera doon. I loved doing that kasi ‘yung role ko doon talagang ibang-iba sa lahat ng ginampanan ko: I played this alaherang, estafadorang, nouveau riche ‘yung family pero siya lang, si Linda, ‘yung yumaman kasi nagpapautang siya ng malaki ‘yung interes. So corrupt person, exploitative, and taking advantage of the weakness of her siblings. It was a comedy. I really, really enjoyed doing that.
“Theater actors will survive under any situation because we can do other things.”
Most of the directors you work with, you’ve worked with before! Are these long-term collaborations important to you?
I realize that now it’s very important because before, as an actor, I would just wing it. I would just go to a set and as long as alam ko ‘yung part ko and I do it well, okay na ‘yun and that’s how I operated for a very long time. It was only recently, I guess it comes with age? When you’re a medyo “senior” na as an actor, directors kind of look at you in a different way. They’re more welcoming of you in collaborations. So yes, I think it’s very important.
If I was in that state when I was younger, I could’ve come up with better work — kung talagang may collaboration between the director and actor. Especially if may relationship na kayo nung director, which I would like to believe I have with Direk Erik [Matti], Direk Dan [Villegas], Direk Tonette [Jadaone]… all of them. Ayoko na order taker ka lang. Kailangan may input ka rin, ‘di ba?
How do you transition between mediums and how do you work with different directors?
I think that…it’s just years of experience for me? Parang nasanay na ‘yung katawan ko na mag-adjust ka eh. Pero nung una mahirap. Sometimes, it escapes you, being adaptable. But I think that if you keep doing it and crossing all those genres and [media], you get used to it. We’ve gotten used to tapering down the acting [for film] and making it bigger for theater. Feeling ko sanayan lang.
You’ve played many nameless women and ensemble roles throughout your career. Has that ever frustrated you or made you want to quit?
Yes! In my whole career, I’ve thought of quitting mga three to four times already. Kasi aabot talaga sa point na wala nang laman ‘yung bulsa mo. Kailangan mo nang maghanap ng paraan. I was doing facilitating at that time. But what would happen is that when I’m booked for a facilitating job and someone calls me to film, ‘di ko na pwedeng tanggapin. May schedule na ako, ‘di ba?
It’s really my eldest daughter who kept telling me not to. She just kept saying: “Mommy, sayang. Ituloy mo lang.” Sabi niya, play it by ear. Tingnan natin kung ano ‘yung mangyayari. Medyo dumami naman kahit paano. Networking rin kasi ang pag-a-artista eh. Pag nakikilala ka na ng mga producers, casting directors, talent coordinators. “Ah. Kailangan natin ng nurse sa ospital. Uy, si Miss Dolly, mukhang nurse!” Tapos tatawagan nila ako. Ako naman: “Sige! Nurse tayo!”
Sinabi ko sa sarili ko: Habang may tumatawag pa, gagawa at gagawa ako. Wala akong pakialam kung anong role yan. Gagawin ko yan. Basta umarte lang ako. I stuck to it because I just gave myself that condition. If people stop calling, stop it. But people kept calling, so I kept going.
I would think this is more about film and TV. But what about theater? I know that theater is a thankless job. There’s little documentation of our work. Few people write about our shows. Why do you love it so much?
Oh my gosh. Theater is like a drug! I swear. Right before you enter the stage, ‘yung adrenaline mo and ‘yung fear mo, para kang papasok ng horror booth. ‘Yung napakagandang horror booth na may safe word? ‘Yung ganoong level. Parang dopamine talaga. Hindi ako nagtataka na during the in-betweens, you’re at a plateau. You tend to be very depressed. Theater has that effect. When you’re about to enter the stage, it gives you that adrenaline rush: ‘yung nasusuka at natatae at the same time and then when you’re up there, you’re releasing all your emotions and you’re not being judged. The character is being judged. So you’re in a safe place.
Ang sarap. ‘Yung applause after? ‘Yung curtain call? Tapos, para sa akin, ‘yun ‘yung measurement lagi kung nag-resonate ‘yung performance ko. Kapag mahina ‘yung palakpak, I think: “Oh my god, I failed tonight.” Pag malakas…theater is very interactive. It’s not just the applause. It’s the vibration in the room. You can feel the audience. You can feel if they’re engaged or not. That’s why Zoom performances? Hate na hate ko ‘yun kasi hindi ko maramdaman ‘yung energy ng kahit sino. Theater has that element that film can never capture — the relationship with your audience that is so personal.
So what did you feel when you got that applause at Cannes?
Oh my god. Grabe. Sobrang grabe, as in. Ang tanga-tanga ko pa nun kasi may kayakap akong artista, tapos kinakalabit na ako na parang: “Uy, tumingin ka na dito. ‘Yung camera, nasa iyo.” Pag kita ko, nandoon ‘yung mukha ko sa screen ng theater! And then ako na pala ‘yung pinapalakpakan! Alien sa akin ‘yung buong pangyayari eh. Hindi ko aakalain na ganoon ‘yung response. Out-of-body experience talaga.
Even if you already knew what was going to happen in the script?
I knew it was something important. I knew it was Ruben Östlund. I knew Abigail was a force to be reckoned with. I knew people would appreciate my performance. But I didn’t know it was going to be that big, the response. I didn’t expect it. Hindi pa ako nakaka-experience ng premiere na ganoon; ‘yung palakpak ng audience! Ano ‘yun?
Did you have any worries going into shooting “Triangle of Sadness?” Were you intimidated when Ruben said you’d craft the character together?
Every single day I would step on that set, when we were filming “Triangle of Sadness,” I was nervous. Every single day. Like I was opening a play. Ganoon ‘yung feeling ko. Parang aapak ka sa wings ng teatro. Ganoon ‘yung pakiramdam. Una, kasi Ruben Östlund ‘yun. Pangalawa, nilipad nila ako doon. Gumastos sila. Pangatlo, nag-audition ako at ako ‘yung napili, so ayaw kong mag-disappoint.
Pero to answer your question about intimidation, when Ruben said we will create this character together, baliktad. Ang dating sa akin noon. (She claps her hand) YES. Ito ang gusto ko.
Nasanay na ako, dahil sa Dulaang UP, ang school of teaching doon is order taker kami. “Do as I say.” I appreciate that, of course because, I mean, I grew up there. That’s my home. Dulaang UP is my home. I was accustomed to that. But I wanted to get away from that already. I wanted to create my own characters. ‘Yung sarili kong input! ‘Yung walang nagsu-spoonfeed sa akin. So nung sinabi niya ‘yun, ang sabi ko: “Ay ang sarap nito.” Sobrang na-excite ako. Hindi ako kinabahan. Pero pagdating sa set, kabadong-kabado ako araw-araw.
When I heard the premise of “Triangle of Sadness,” it reminded me immediately of Joey Gosiengfiao’s “Temptation Island.”
Yes! Actually, someone else pointed it out to me.
Do you think comedy and satire are effective vehicles for critiquing the world?
Absolutely. I think they’re a good alternative to drama. Because [with] drama, you connect to it emotionally. But when you present it like satire, it’s kind of like a mirror to also see yourself. They’re poking fun at someone else. But then you realize they’re also poking fun at me. I’m also guilty of that. And then you laugh at it and you realize that you’re laughing at yourself and then you self-check and you realize: “Shit. Mukha akong tanga. I should change the way I am.”
I think it’s very effective and people are naturally… I don’t know… they feel a more emotional connection when they laugh at it rather than if they feel sad about it, or if they cry. So yeah, definitely satire, para sa akin, ang sarap-sarap gawin nun. Kasi it’s art’s way of putting the mirror in front of the audience and saying: “Uy, tingnan niyo ‘yung sarili ninyo. Ganito kayo.”
Do you find it more difficult to do comedy or drama? Or are they the same and all of it is just acting?
I find it very difficult to do comedy. I find it easier to do drama. I think dahil sa training ko. Most of my work in theater has been drama. Konti lang naman ginawa kong comedy — “Ang Naghihingalo” lang at ‘yung “The Tempest.” ‘Yung dalawang ‘yun lang ‘yung ginawa ko.
Comedy requires timing. [With] drama, it also requires some form of timing pero it’s not the kind of timing where you feel a pulse. You read the script, you trust the script, you trust the character’s journey and you do it. With comedy, it requires a certain genius. Which is why bilib ako sa mga Eugene Domingo of the world because they can pull it off without effort. And I don’t think she’s even calculating her timing, it’s just natural for her. Mahirap! Mahirap ang comedy.
You were in Dulaang UP with her, right?
Yes, it’s wild! I would tell her nung students kami…I would laugh at all of her jokes. Nakakatawa talaga siya. I would tell her: “Pina-practice mo ba ‘yung jokes mo sa bahay? Kasi nakakatawa ka talaga.” And she would laugh at me, siyempre, kasi hindi naman totoo ‘yun. Di naman niya pina-practice ‘yung jokes niya. Wild talaga. Batchmate ko rin si Candy Pangilinan.
Your work is deeply political. Not only because of the people you’ve gravitated towards throughout your career, but also because of the stories you like to tell and the characters you like to inhabit. What do you hope to do with your artistry?
Alam mo, Jason, ‘yung observation mo na yan, that’s not planned. But I’m so happy you noticed that. Because I think it’s serendipitous na it turned out na ganoon pala ‘yung trabahong ginawa ko — na may activism pala siya na juxtaposition.
“Sinabi ko sa sarili ko: Habang may tumatawag pa, gagawa at gagawa ako. Wala akong pakialam kung anong role ‘yan. Gagawin ko 'yan. Basta umarte lang ako. I stuck to it because I just gave myself that condition. If people stop calling, stop it. But people kept calling, so I kept going.”
I really believe that art and artists have a responsibility. It’s not just theater, film, or television. They’re not just mediums that we use as a means to an end — to support our families or to explore our talents. I think it’s also our moral responsibility to share stories that affect society and hopefully change the way society views how, you know, politicism happens in our country, and how society’s reacting to the way politics is played in our country. I think it’s our job to show that to them and hopefully for them to realize that.
Our education system right now in the country is not enough to educate the youth. I think that through cinema [and the arts], we can also help them realize the reality of what is really happening. Of course it’s very important. I think it’s my responsibility as an actor to show that as much as possible, so that we’re not just passively observing what is happening in our country but actually proactively doing something about it through art.
I spoke to Guelan Luarca, who you’ve worked with in “Middle Finger,” and he urged me to ask you: “Dolly, if you could dream up any role you’d like to play, what would it be?”
I’m always asked that and every time someone asks me, I think: “Ano nga ba?” And sometimes, when I’m alone, iniisip ko: “Ano nga ba dream role ko?” Siguro dahil di ko mahanap ‘yung sagot, wala akong dream role. Wala talaga.
Kasi unang-una, ayaw kong gumawa ng kahit na ano na nagawa na. Pangalawa, if I were to dream up a character, I have answer for that: I want to play a very strong woman who thinks she’s weak and she’s going through a lot of internal turmoil but is masking it with strength. That’s what I want to play. Gusto ko ‘yung pinahihirapan ko ‘yung sarili ko. Gusto kong gawin ‘yun kasi gusto kong makita kung hanggang saan ang kaya ko.
Usually, they say that acting is reacting or acting is conveying an emotion. But if you play a character like that, who has a lot of internal turmoil and who thinks she’s weak but actually she’s strong and she’s not aware of it and she’s constantly fighting by wearing this smokescreen of strength to hide her weakness, ang sarap gawin nun. Ang challenging nun.
Pero if you asked me that question in my 20s, ‘yun ‘yung dream ko dati [was] to play “Sibyl” (1976), ‘yung kay Sally Field and Joanne Woodward. Kaya lang lumabas na ‘yung “Split” ni James McAvoy. So nagawa na. So ayaw ko nang gawin ‘yun.
So ayaw mong mag-one woman show? ‘Yung mga “Ang Dalagita'y 'sang Bagay Na Di-buo”?
Okay. Ito na guys. ‘Yung totoo. Hindi na ako magpapanggap: I hate doing monologues. I hate doing one-act things where I’m not talking to anyone. Oh my god. I admire stand up comedians. I can never do that. Because for me, the enjoyment that I feel from acting is sharing the scene with a partner. I don’t like acting alone. I don’t. So no.
So what makes a great scene partner?
Someone who’s generous. Someone who listens. An example of that is Angeli Bayani. She’s a great scene partner. She listens. She doesn’t think of her next line. She’s really in the scene with you; in the moment. ‘Yun ang great scene partner — being in the moment and not thinking of themselves, but thinking of their scene partner.
May misconception that acting is “basta isipin ko ‘yung sarili ko, okay na.” If all of us think of ourselves, we’ll be fine. But no eh. Acting is thinking about everybody else — making everybody look good. Except for yourself. You’re your last priority. Importante sa akin ‘yung masarap sa scene partner.
Do you think you’ve applied that philosophy to different parts of your life as well?
Ang hirap mo, Jason! I love it! Gusto ko pinahihirapan ko sarili ko.
I think so. Not only my life as an actor, but my life as a human being is deeply rooted in human relationships. I don’t have a lot of friends but the few friends that I have, I love dearly. I’m the type to burn bridges if I see that you’re only thinking of yourself. I’d rather not? Because we should be here for each other. That’s what we’re here for: to be here for each other and with each other; putting others’ lives at high value. Because at the end of the day, it’s a cliche, but no man is an island. I think that’s what being an actor is: you have to have that empathy.
Photos by JAKE VERZOSA
Assisted by GERIC CRUZ
Hair by RAKI OREJOLA of Basement Salon
Cover design by THE PUBLIC SCHOOL MANILA
Produced by DON JAUCIAN
“Triangle of Sadness” has no playdate yet in the Philippines. For updates, check out the TBA Studios Facebook page.
Erratum: The article previously included Christopher Novabos’ “Lagaslas” as one of de Leon's forthcoming films but after the article went to print, we were informed that de Leon will no longer be part of the cast. The updated article has also added the title of Teng Mangansakan’s new film.